From congregation to audience?

worshipOver the years I have had more than a passing interest in church architecture. One of the interesting things is to interpret why churches are built and furnished in different ways. There are of course, major differences between churches built in the eastern Mediterranean and those which have been designed in the West. One obvious feature in Eastern Orthodox churches which is different from what we are used to, is the way that there is almost a complete absence of windows in such buildings. In many cases the walls are filled with paintings or mosaics, and the only way we can see them is from the light that comes from artificial light, especially candles. The interaction between flickering candles and mosaics is fairly magical, and we would add mysterious. This sense of mystery, a participation in the unknown, is exactly what Eastern architect wanted to evoke in the worshippers.

In the western half of Christendom we observe a major transition between the mediaeval period and what came later. In some churches of the Reformation that wanted to downplay the prominence that had been given to the old Roman rite or the Mass, there was an emphasis on the pulpit and thus it was situated in a place of prominence at the centre of the building. The reading and the preaching about the Word of God were clearly the most important activities in church buildings of this tradition. Most of the churches in the Anglican tradition still gave a prominence to the altar and it was and is important for traditional Anglican worship that this structure should be visible from every part of the building. But even here, elaborate and intrusive pulpits were frequently constructed in the 18th century to emphasise the place of preaching in these buildings. Most of these were however, swept away by the Victorians. In most Anglican churches we now have forward facing pews so that there is once more a focus on the altar and the communion services that took place there.

Today in some churches there is a new architectural phenomenon to be seen. This is the raising of a stage construction at the front of the church. The purpose of this is not for the preaching of the word or the reading of the Bible but it is to give a platform for new servants of the church, the music group. The churches where services can last for over two hours, at least half of that time is spent in listening to this music group performing, or perhaps accompanying congregational singing. This music, to judge by the amount of time spent on its performance, has become the most important feature of worship in many modern churches. From the perspective of view of a traditional leader of worship such as myself, I have to ask the question as to whether such musical performance is entertainment rather than real worship. Are people coming to church, at least on occasion, simply to be entertained? Are worshippers turning into an audience? This is a valid question which I feel we need to consider. If I am right, then there has been a devaluation of the activity of worship.

What is worship? This is a question we have to address in order to give a measured response to our questions. Most traditional answers to this question would be to see worship as what the people of God bring as their offering to him. The emphasis is here, not on what we receive in church, but on what we can give. Traditional liturgical words like offertory and thanksgiving imply that the people in a congregation are expected to do something, to put an effort into this activity of worship. The traditional procession of the elements of bread and wine together with the envelopes containing financial gifts represent an important symbolism at the heart of worship. We can sum up the whole movement of the service by saying that worship is what we come to give of ourselves to God so that he can give himself to us in the form of consecrated bread and wine. This initial giving of ourselves makes possible the receiving of the gift of Christ so that ‘we can dwell in him and he in us’.

From the perspective of this kind of theology, there is something very superficial and inadequate about an endless succession of Christian songs being performed on a stage. Even if this kind of music is agreeable to a worshipper, and often it is not, it is hard to see how listening even to a semi-professional band is spiritually edifying. If in fact listening to this music is mainly to be regarded as entertainment, it is difficult to see how it becomes any kind of offering to God. It could of course be argued that the offerings of professional cathedral choirs are also forms of entertainment, but there are some major differences. Most composers of such liturgical music, such as Palestrina or Bach, have a very strong sense of the meaning of the words that they set to music. In other words each composer is interpreting a traditional liturgical text and giving it a distinct musical form. The words of the liturgy, in summary, are given a musical interpretation which heightens their meaning and impact on those who listen. Words and music achieve a harmony which can enrich the worshipper and become part of their offering to God.

To return to my title and question about worship. Are congregations sometimes becoming more like audiences and consumers of something that is being performed on a stage? Is the act of worship becoming closer to an attendance at the theatre? If entertainment were to become the dominant emphasis experienced by congregations, then we would be moving away from the old notion that we go to church to make our offering of praise and thanksgiving. When we say the traditional words ‘it is meet and right, our duty and our joy in every place and at all times to give you thanks O God’, we are saying something quite different from ‘I go to church because I enjoy listening to a musical performance’. Perhaps the next time we go to a church we need to look around at the architecture. The placing of a stage at the front of a church building may speak to us as powerfully as the positioning of the altar or the pulpit in the past. Is the church architecture encouraging us to think of ourselves as consumers of musical entertainment or are we being called to give thanks and offer ourselves in the worship of Almighty God?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “From congregation to audience?

  1. Thank You Stephen

    One of the most important blogs ever!

    How far, far away from the words of William Temple we have come. We need a Million watt amplifier, everyone issued with personal loud hailer and fifty pounds of headlights stapled to our chest to get this message out to a, deaf, dumb and blind church.
    Stephen has blown wide open the inverted parodies and theatrical superhuman mess that has been defecated on the church, by people with an; ‘anything goes’ agenda. We have sat back and let the world and his wife enter the sanctuary and even welcomed in that perversity.

    I have tried to start a discussion with some of these praise band members, and even with those who have become part of a thriving, “Christian” music industry, only to be totally ignored!

    It seems that asking plain honest questions is not something that is wanted. Just try getting an answer from the, ‘Christian media’ these days and see how you are fobbed off, no, totally ignored!
    The elevation of stage entertainers in fellowships has marked a separation now fixed with super glue, and further more, the ‘leaders’ come at you with an aloofness that borders on indifference, oh so certain that they have, ‘Got it right!’
    Christian celebrities travel the country and put on ‘performance testimonies’, I have personal knowledge of what at least some charge. This is quite simply a blasphemy.

    If I was attending one of these places and had a personal crisis like the death of a husband or wife, I would find no depth of comfort amid the; ‘lets praise God’ make a noise solution, and could very easily end up suicidal.

    My days and time trying to communicate this are coming to and end, I find a dark liquorice hostile indifference to this issue, Stephen is the only person, (Minister of religion), I know who has stuck his head out over this issue. What a dirty rotten shame he appears to be alone?
    The circus goes on and on and on! Well, at least the horses get fed.

    Sick and tired,

    Chris Pitts

  2. Great post, Stephen. I agree about the performance, but I don’t agree that the Cathedral Choir is not a performance. Now, I think I understand what you say about worship, one of the best explications I have heard or read. I went over to speak to my Spiritual Director during a long organ piece after a service, and he held up his hand for me to wait until it had finished. He explained that this was the organist’s worship, in the sense of his offering to God. It’s a great thought. Unfortunately, many organists are just performing, and so are many choirs. And that is what the audience want. Which is why Cathedrals are so poorly attended when the choir is on holiday. And for many evangelicals, “worship” is a synonym for music. And the music group are “worship leaders”. Now I happen to think there are many forms of worship, and the ministers are worship leaders. So no meeting of minds, there.
    Chris, I have found that retired clergy are usually open to criticism of the church, and working clergy far less so. Thankfully, Stephen was in this field before he retired. I think those who feel they cannot speak out need our prayers.
    One more thought. There is an element of performance in taking a service. Things like speaking clearly, learning to project, moving around without walking into the furniture and becoming a distraction, facing the congregation when you turn round and so on. And if what you offer is music, and you are very good, you do have to settle the question of performance. What I think is, what is the justification for offering less than your best to God? And I have heard some modern music that is good, and Christian worship groups likewise. The volume, however, is often an issue. God, after all, is not deaf.

  3. Thank EnglishAthena,

    It is my honest belief that the praise band and Christian celebrity culture has done untold damage to the reputation of the church.
    I know of people who have become so addicted to this that in the final end they became seriously ill. I did!
    Moreover, the whole concept of Christian audience, has been so strategically normalized, that in a lot of evangelical fellowship theaters the last question to be asked is, ‘Why am I here?’

    The social ministry of the church can be very good I have no problem here, however, those outsiders who genuinely seek Christ, can be so put off by internal church activity, that they simply walk away, especially those from the lower working class.

    So again, taking on Stephen point about audience, we are left with, upstage and downstage ‘Christians,’ and, power games. Have we not been here before?

    And so again I ask the question, the same question I have been asking consistently for over ten years now, does the Church care enough about the outsiders, to have a thorough internal examination on the specific points I raise?

    I believe you to be a kind reasonable person, and I ask you as a friend to consider this from the perspective of someone outside the church. The first impression a seeker gets is so important, the real Jesus Son of God, or, a parody like the Vicar of Dibley?



    1. Oh I worry about the first timer a lot. The CofE in particular is terrible about assuming that everyone knows what is going on. But both beautifully done Haydn and very loud Townend can be off putting if it’s new and strange.

  4. Thanks EnglishAthena

    I hope that all who read this blog will consider my concerns. I believe it to be one of the most important questions facing the credibility of the Christian Faith!

  5. I like the concept of what is the attitude of the worshipper toward the time together in whatever we call “church ” time . Giving of ourselves, thankfulness , humility seem the best to me .. I have been to modern services where the stated purpose even from the pastor was ” we want more”. Bring us more of the spirit … On and on
    As well I have witnessed endless repetition of song words and the phrase ” sacrifice of praise”. As the possible stated purpose. My father was a horribly wounded and angry man after he came home from Gemany WW2 . He witnessed massive horrors. He said no God who is good would ever allow the things he did and saw.. Thus he lost his faith.
    However he never stopped loving cathedrals and the voices from behind and the lights.
    He even said his platoon would try always to pray even in bombed out cathedrals.
    He liked the sense of light and color and beauty that made him feel closer to God..
    I have been a fiddler in a modern style church worship team. I am still bothered by the concept that we were performers and in danger of our own arrogance. We prayed that this would never happen before each service. I am conflicted . To bring many young people into the church , being seeker sensitive, not requiring much from the ” audience” and often not even a time of confession . But is all we are talking about just some cultural patterns. One likes what one got used to .. That becomes ” normal ”
    Travel, seeing how other Chirstians do things, going to massively poor churches, seems like a good and wise thing to do … thus having Missions people come back and telling us their experiences helps to keep us from being too insular.

    1. Very moving, Mark. I trained as a singer myself, and it’s a hard circle to square. I decided I just had to offer my best to God. You know the consecration hymn, “Take my voice and let me sing, always only for my king”? Every time.

  6. Thank you Mark,

    Your thoughts on the praise band issue I find encouraging. I stand by every word I have said above.
    However, I wont repeat myself here. If you would like further information about my experience in the modern evangelical movement and “Christian Music,” I have a small on line book: “Broken Body” I can send if, only if, you would find it helpful.


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